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The True Danger of Trump and His Media Allies Denying the Election Results

Misinformation and conspiracy theories can foment violence and thwart democracy.

In addition to the president’s own tweets falsely declaring he won an election he lost, Trump supporters are also refusing to concede defeat and questioning the legitimacy of the results in places he lost. With perhaps 70 percent of Republican voters believing the election was illegitimate and thousands of far right extremists swarming on Washington, D.C., last Saturday, we must worry both about the spread of this misinformation and its effects.

Similar circumstances following the 1872 election in Louisiana led not only to the Colfax Massacre and the White League attempt to overthrow the state government, but also to a wave of assassinations and smaller coups that ousted local officials. These grew from a vast and sophisticated misinformation network — similar to the conservative media ecosystem today — though which White vigilantes waged a massive terrorist campaign and inaugurated a century of white supremacist rule.

The election of 1872 came at a pivotal moment in Louisiana. The state had ratified a constitution in 1868 that enfranchised Black men, created integrated public schools and outlawed discrimination. White supremacists, who just years before had fought and died to maintain slavery, responded by massacring Black voters in Bossier, St. Bernard and St. Landry Parishes. They plotted a mass voter suppression and fraud effort to overturn the fledgling interracial democracy in the coming election of 1872. The Grant administration ultimately tossed out these results and installed William Pitt Kellogg as the governor of the state, who probably had the support of a majority coalition of Black and White leftists.

Yet, after having rigged the election through widespread fraud, intimidation and violence, White conservatives refused to accept defeat and set up a shadow government headed by losing gubernatorial candidate John McEnery. They used the conservative press to threaten Black officeholders and eventually created their own paper, the New Orleans Bulletin, to coordinate attacks by their paramilitary arm, the White League.

Much like today’s right-wing media, the Bulletin printed wild conspiracy theories and misinformation. For example, they spread rumors of a Black League that aimed to murder White Louisianans. No such organization existed. Instead, just as today’s white supremacists spread lies that antifa plans to murder White babies, the Bulletin designed this misinformation to drive White League recruitment efforts and to justify their crimes. The Bulletin argued “there is no longer any government in Louisiana but an organized anarchy” — eerily similar to the Trump administration’s bizarre designation of “anarchist jurisdictions” — a premise it used to launch its attempt to overthrow the state government on Sept. 14, 1874.

After the Grant administration put down the coup, which had successfully toppled the state government, the paper shifted its tactics to force Black officeholders to step down. In December, for example, it published racist tirades against T.M.J. Clark, the Black president of the State Insane Asylum, ...